BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 05: Alex McLeish of Aston Villa celebrates looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Norwich City at Villa Park on November 5, 2011 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
I promise, we didn't sit all sit down and decide to mercilessly bash Alex McLeish. I think we'd all prefer to talk about something else quite frankly, because it's all getting a little bit depressing. But damn if the man doesn't keep giving us material. In continuing his rant against any and all criticism of his managerial style, McLeish has struck out at those who would describe his tactical approach as negative. A few choice quotes:
I think it’s a myth, I just think it’s a myth. I think in all my days as a coach and manager I’ve had pretty dynamic teams all the way.
I don’t think they’re examining the facts, so there’s nothing much I can do about that, but it’s a myth. That’s for sure and that’s a fact.
Why don’t they look at other things as well, rather than just looking at the manager?
Do you think we don’t work on finishing? Every single day we end up with a finishing session, practising shots on goal and getting strikes on target.
Sweet merciful heavens. Let's take this point by point, shall we?
Alex McLeish insists that he's had "dynamic" teams throughout his career. Now, I'll admit that I never watched his Motherwell or Hibernian teams play. A big part of that is due to the fact that I do my best to avoid Scottish football entirely, but realistically it has a lot more to do with the fact that I was a young kid without cable at the time. Luckily Wikipedia is a thing that exists, so we have a little bit of information at our disposal. Eck's first season at Motherwell was promising, and his side scored 50 goals (more than all teams in the league save for Rangers) while finishing second. The rest of the time? Not so good. In his four seasons in charge Motherwell averaged 42 goals a year (1.17 per game) and in his second year as manager scored a staggeringly awful 28 goals. McLeish stressed how positive his Hibernian teams were, and he's got a point; his first year at the helm, Hibs scored 84 times in earning promotion to the Premier League. In the top tier they scored at a pretty decent clip as well, and more importantly they had a reputation as being an entertaining and positive side (within the context of the Scottish Premier League, of course.)
After moving to Rangers, McLeish resided over some exceedingly prolific teams, and his 2002-03 Gers side managed a staggering (again, Scotland) 101 goals. But that's to be expected; Rangers and Celtic are on a completely different level from their competition. I did see Rangers play under McLeish a time or two, and I can say pretty confidently that their knack for goalscoring had a lot less to do with an attacking style than it did their ability by virtue of far superior talent to completely impose their will on weaker teams. Stoke is generally regarded as the epitome of negative football, but on their day they can put up some gaudy numbers; when you're an Old Firm club, you're going to dominate. If you don't you find yourself out on your ass pretty quickly because you're quite clearly incompetent. What's more, McLeish left Rangers over five years ago. He could have managed Hibernian like Walter Mazzarri on a cocaine binge and it wouldn't be especially relevant to what's going on now.
As for his assertion that people aren't examining the facts; what facts would those be? The fact that Darren Bent and Gabby Agbonlahor rank 1st and 10th in terms of fewest touches per game, respectively? Or the fact that Villa has scored just 16 goals from 14 games, good enough for 1.14 per game despite one of the easier schedules in the league to this point? The 113 shots? The staggeringly awful 124 chances created? And before you say "stats don't tell the whole story!" remember that McLeish is the one asking people to "examine the facts." Football statistics are far from perfect. But when our eyes tell us Alex McLeish plays negative football and the facts back it up, well, Eck's case is just a wee bit harder to make.
And of course there's the inevitable throwing the players under the bus bit. Look Alex, we know that the players haven't been playing well. And though getting them to do so is kind of the entire scope of your job title I think we also recognize that they're at fault too. Eck has taken a massive share of the criticism, certainly. But there have been plenty of fingers pointed in the direction of the men on the pitch as well. But that doesn't have anything to do with whether or not the football is negative. Villa was pretty terrible for long stretches last season too, but even the most outspoken critics of Gerard Houllier didn't call the football the team was playing negative. It's not just a thing people say as knee-jerk criticism; people are saying it because it's true.
My favorite part - by quite some margin - is Eck's stressing that the club works extensively on their finishing. For all that is holy, no one is complaining about poor finishing. The complaints are pretty much entirely dedicated to the fact that how well the team finishes is completely irrelevant because no one ever takes any shots because they never have the ball in dangerous areas. I don't know whether Alex McLeish is just overly defensive or whether he's bad at making his point or (most plausibly and easily most worrying) thinks that the difference between positive and negative football is the quality of the finishing. But this has nothing to do with the point. We all know Darren Bent can finish. We all know Gabby Agbonlahor can finish. What does that matter if they're so choked off from the ball that they never get the chance.
The most frustrating thing about this is the stubbornness McLeish's position entails. There are perfectly reasonable arguments that could be made for Villa's tactical approach and while I wouldn't agree with them, it would be far easier to deal with if McLeish were trying to persuade people to see things his way. Instead, he's chosen to stick his fingers in his ears and go "LALALALALALALALA MY FOOTBALL ISN'T NEGATIVE I CAN'T HEEEAAARRR YOOOUUU." It's appallingly arrogant, petulant and insulting to the intelligence of pretty much everyone on the planet. I know what I'm seeing, and so does every other observer of English football on the planet. That McLeish seems to be the only one that sees things differently should lead him to reevaluate his position. Instead he has chosen to insult the fans and continue pointing the finger of blame at the players. There are two options here; either McLeish is a liar with appallingly thin skin and an inability to admit to something that might make some people think less of him, or he genuinely believes the things he's saying. I don't know which of the two is worse.